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Facing Up to Sexual Harassment in Schools

Lately I’ve been concerned about a rise in sexual harassment in schools. Too many girls, and some female teachers, are being expected to turn the other cheek in the face of harassment from boys — whether it be verbal taunts, degrading comments on Facebook, explicit text messages or actual physical assault. Some schools are doing a brilliant job of dealing with this issue, but unfortunately there are many schools who are yet to grasp the seriousness of it.

We are on the brink of a disturbing new reality here. Boys are being exposed to a pornification of our culture — in music, on TV, in films and on the net — so it is perhaps little wonder that increasingly they feel that sex-based harassment is acceptable. It is up to schools and parents to teach them that it’s not. 

Too often the victims are left with the burden of trying to combat harassment. Recently a school told me that boys’ sexual comments and attitudes towards female teachers had become so problematic that they needed to take action. So they asked me if I could suggest ways to help their female staff become more resilient to the boys’ sex-based harassment. I applauded the fact that they wanted to take action on behalf of their female staff — but the onus should not have been on those women. Women and girls should never be taught to put up with sexual harassment. It is the boys who need to be taught that girls and women deserve respect, just as every human being deserves respect.

Another recent incident got me thinking about all this. A Year 9 girl stood up in class to get a textbook, when a boy lifted up her skirt for everyone to see and started taunting her. She began crying but managed to compose herself and sit down — and then another boy reached inside her blouse to try to rip her bra off.

The school’s response was to give the boys detention. Given that the same school gives detention for behaviour such as failing to do homework, this was an offensively weak punishment. For the girl, it was like being humiliated all over again. The boys received no counselling on why what they had done was wrong. And because the adults didn’t take it seriously, the boys didn’t either.

It was only when the girl’s incensed father pointed out to the school that what the boys did was actually an assault — a criminal offence — that the penny dropped. The school suspended the boys and called in their parents. Then the boys grasped the seriousness of what they had done, and they gave the girl a genuine apology. Like all kids, teen boys need adults to set and enforce boundaries.

When asked what the school’s sexual harassment policy was, the principal said, “Well, we don’t condone sexual harassment.” That is a laughable response — but actually, we shouldn’t scoff, because this principal is not alone. Plenty of schools don’t have policies. Perhaps they haven’t got around to it, they don’t think harassment is happening in their schools or they don’t grasp how damaging it is. Since this incident, the school is developing a sexual harassment policy. If something like that happens again, there will be guidelines to follow and everyone will understand that sexual harassment is never okay.

Implement a Sexual Harassment Policy at Your School

Formulating a policy for your school does not have to be a daunting task: the Australian Human Rights Commission has exceptional resources to help educators. Below is a summary of what a good sexual harassment policy contains according to the Commission. For more details and guidance, download the full information kit here. It also includes lesson plans, activity and resource sheets, and there’s a DVD available — all of which are very well written and sure to get meaningful discussions going in your classroom.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, a good school sexual harassment policy includes:

  • A strong statement on the school’s attitude to sexual harassment
  • An outline of the school’s objectives regarding sexual harassment 
  • A plain English definition of sexual harassment 
  • A definition of what sexual harassment is not
  • A statement that sexual harassment is against the law
  • Possible consequences if the sexual harassment policy is breached
  • Options available for dealing with sexual harassment
  • Where to get help or advice.

The Human Rights Commission stresses that a written policy is not enough. Ask yourself:

  • Are people aware of the policy? Do they have a copy of it?
  • Is it provided to new staff and students?
  • Is it periodically reviewed? It is available in appropriate languages?
  • Are there training and awareness-related strategies associated with the policy?

School is of the front lines in the battle against sexual harassment. The home is another important one. So I am heartened that there are not only women but also men who are calling for adults to be good role models and to teach kids the importance of respecting all human beings — girls and boys, women and men. This poetic and inspiring call, by a man, for less objectification and more respect of women and girls moved me so much I cried:

Published inBullyingFeminismParentsPower of WordsSchoolsSexual harassment and discrimination

3 Comments

  1. Ella

    Incredible article Danni. Thank you for sharing. I think in our culture, we’ve been so overexposed to stories of sexual assault that it’s only the graphic stories involving the woman ending up in hospital or with long-term reproductive system damage which shocks us. It’s almost as if this has been entirely normalised. Even women seem to have the attitute “well it happens to everyone, right? So just get over it.” Which is so wrong.

    Perhaps if there were higher conviction rates for more “minor” (and believe me when I emphasise the use of the quotation marks in that statement) assaults and there was actually a fear around being seen as a sexual predator. But with a lower than 1% conviction rate in NSW for sexual offenders, and that’s out of the cases that make it as far as court, or even being reported, it sends the message that it’s a crime that the offender will probably get away with.

    I just hope that someone teaches these boys, before they become men and think they can treat women; their mothers, girlfriends, sisters, aunts, wives, etc. like that.

    Thanks Danni for opening my mind to this.

  2. Michelle

    Hey Danni
    Your articles are always enlightening – but this one in particular has really impacted on me.
    I am the mum of 3 teenage boys & a preteen daughter – I will be getting my boys to watch this and reinforce what an amazing positive message it contains.
    I have also shared it on my facebook page and particularly asked my male relatives & friends to watch it – all of them have mothers, sisters, wives/girlfriends, aunts & many have daughters…
    Thanks for the amazing work that you do.

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